Getting enough good-quality of sleep is vital for a child’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. However, making sure your child gets the right amount of sleep can be easier said than done. Many children develop poor habits surrounding sleep or may even have one of the many sleep disorders that can affect young children. In general, children need support from their parents to establish healthy routines right from the start.
Helping your child to achieve a healthy sleep cycle can be difficult because parents have to adapt to their rapidly-changing needs. As your child gets older, you’ll find that their sleep habits and requirements change dramatically, and parents need to be able to adapt to their developmental stage. If your child has trouble sleeping anyway, this can be very challenging.
However, it’s well worth the effort to get children into an established, healthy routine. If a child doesn’t get enough quality sleep, this can affect their mood, academic performance, behaviour and even their physical and mental health.
So, exactly how much sleep does your child need, and how do you make sure they get it? Our experts have compiled this handy guide explaining everything you need to know about your child’s sleep needs as they grow. We’ll explain how much sleep children need by developmental stage, how to establish good sleep routines and tell you everything you need to know about some of the sleep disorders common in babies, toddlers and children.
How Much Sleep Does My Children Need?
Find your child’s age to see how many hours of sleep they need overall, during the day, and at night, along with helpful tips for each age.
Newborn-2 months: 16-18 hours
Newborns usually sleep in chunks of around 2-4 hours each time. At this stage, they are simply not wired to sleep through the night like an older child or adult can. Some babies may sleep better if you swaddle them and/or use a white noise machine, as both of these methods can be very reassuring. Babies of this age should sleep flat on their back to avoid the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and do not need a pillow. For a better night sleep, every parents should use a good crib mattress to reduce the risk of SIDS.
2-4 months: 14-16 hours
At this age, you can begin to try and establish the start of a bedtime routine, for example by having a soothing bath and a story before bed. Your baby will still need naps totalling around 4-5 hours per day.
4-6 months: 14-15 hours
Many babies are able and ready to sleep through the night by this age, although some may not be quite there yet. To encourage longer sleep sessions during the night, you can try feeding your baby immediately before putting them to bed.
6-12 months: 14 hours
Your baby can now be put down to bed when they are sleepy but still awake. They may be anxious to be left at first, but with plenty of reassurance they will learn that you will come back in the morning when they wake up. It’s also important to check that your baby cannot escape from their crib, as some children of this age will be able to climb out and could potentially injure themselves.
1-2 years: 13-14 hours
A predictable nap and sleep routine is important for children of this age. Try and put them down to sleep at the same time every day and try to engage in familiar, soothing activities before bed. Your child will still need 2-3 hours of nap time a day at this age, with the balance of their total sleep time at night.
2-3 years: 12-14 hours
Some 2-3 year olds will be ready and able to transfer to a regular bed. Many parents also potty train their children at this age. Although some night-time accidents are inevitable and normal at this age, it’s a good idea to limit food and drink close to bedtime to keep this to a minimum. All the same, it’s a good idea to invest in some protective, waterproof bedding during this time. If your child uses screens, try not to allow them too close to bedtime.
3-5 years: 11-13 hours
By the time your child is 5, they probably won’t need a daytime nap at all any more. Don’t be surprised if your child experiences nightmares for the first time around now- bad dreams are very common at this age.
5-12 years: 10-11 hours
Although your child is older, they still need consistent routines, rules and boundaries around bedtime. Limiting screen time before bed is especially important, as children tend to access devices more at this age. Many older children have busy routines full of extra-curricular and social activities. However, it’s important that you do not allow this to encroach on their need for enough sleep.
How to Set Your Child’s Sleep Routine
According to Sleep Foundations, children of all ages need a consistent sleep routine. In fact, you’re never too old to benefit from bedtime routines- they can be helpful for adults too, especially if they have trouble falling asleep. Routines help to create a sense of safety and predictability around bedtime and can help ease some of the stresses that sometimes come with trying to get a child to go to sleep.
Put your child to bed at the same time every night
If you keep bedtime as consistent as possible, your child’s body clock will adapt to sleeping at the same time every night. This makes it much easier for them to fall and stay sleep. Of course, there will be the odd occasion where staying up later than usual is inevitable, and children love being allowed to stay up late every now and then. Although you don’t want your child to miss out on this treat altogether, it’s best to keep interruptions to your child’s usual bedtime to a minimum. In particular, it can be counterproductive to allow a much later bedtime every weekend.
Don’t allow screens before bed
The blue light from screens can make it very difficult for children to nod off. For this reason, you should switch devices off as long as possible before bedtime. Instead, switch to a calm, electronics-free activity such as reading or coloring.
Keep bed just for sleeping
It’s important that your child associates getting into bed with going to sleep. Although it’s fine (and lovely) to read a short story together in bed, developing a habit of prolonged reading or using devices in bed can reduce your child’s association between bed and sleep.
Give due warning
If your child is often reluctant to stop what they’re doing to go to bed, it’s a good idea to give them a short warning period before it’s time to pack away and head upstairs. Some children find having a timer makes it easier to stop and go to bed. Once time is up, don’t negotiate for a longer playtime- it’s time for bed!
No drinks or snacks before bed
Eating and drinking straight before bed can make it harder to sleep, especially if snacks and drinks contain sugar or caffeine. It also makes it more likely that your child will be disturbed by needing the toilet in the night. If they’re really thirsty, stick to water once they’ve brushed their teeth to avoid damage.
Use familiar objects
Comforting items such as soft toys, blankets and even familiar pyjamas can all be helpful for establishing a sleep routine. If your child is used to seeing and using the same items every night, these become a cue that it’s time for bed. These objects can also be very comforting if your child is anxious or upset during the night.
Choose a calming activity
Activities such as reading a calming story, listening to soothing music or even massage or mindfulness techniques can all be calming before bed, especially if you use the same familiar activity every night.
Try a warm bath
Having a warm bath or even a shower can be a good way to get your child ready to sleep. The rise in body temperature followed by the drop when your child gets out is known to trigger a feeling of sleepiness. Adding soothing scents to the bath such as lavender can also help to induce sleepiness.
Common Childhood Sleep Problems and Disorders
If you’re lucky, your child may breeze through their childhood with no sleep problems whatsoever. However, most children will experience problems with their sleep at some point. Fortunately, most can be eased or resolved with some basic intervention at home or with help from your child’s doctor. Many childhood sleep problems resolve on their own as your child gets older. Occasionally, a child may develop a sleep disorder requiring more specialist support.
Read on for some of the most common sleep problems and disorders that you may encounter:
Most children experience bad dreams or nightmares at some point or other. They are most common in young children. They may cause the child to wake up in distress and can make them anxious to go to bed. Your child is more likely to have nightmares if they have had an upsetting or distressing experience, during times of change such as starting school, or if they’ve been exposed to upsetting or frightening content on television. However, there will often be no identifiable reason for your child’s nightmares.
If your child has nightmares, give them plenty of comfort and reassure them that the dream isn’t real. They may want to talk about the dream with you in detail. Some children will find it reassuring if you ‘check’ under the bed or in the wardrobes to assure them their room is safe.
Although nightmares often can’t be avoided, maintaining consistent and comforting bedtime routines can help. Try to make sure that your child isn’t watching scary TV shows or reading frightening stories and try to limit screen time before bed.
Just like adults, children can find it very difficult to fall asleep. This is known as insomnia. Their insomnia may be short-term, sporadic or could become a chronic issue. Trouble falling asleep is reasonably common in children. Establishing good sleep routines and doing calming activities before bed can help to make falling asleep easier. If your child’s insomnia is chronic, you should seek help from their doctor to rule out any underlying cause and for help with managing their sleeplessness. However, unlike with adults, it is unlikely that children will be prescribed sleeping medications.
Night terrors are a reasonably rare phenomenon that causes a child to react with extreme symptoms of fear such as screaming, thrashing or sweating. Although they can be distressing for parents and carers to witness, the child is usually asleep during them. It may seem instinctive to wake your child and try to comfort them, but this could be very frightening for them. Instead, wait with them until the night terror passes to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Usually, children will fall back into a deep sleep after a short amount of time without any intervention.
Sleep walking and talking is reasonably common in young children. Unless your child is sleep walking so frequently that they are unable to focus during the day or they do dangerous things in their sleep, there is probably no need for any intervention. Instead, guide your child silently back to bed. It’s a good idea to keep the floor clear of trip hazards so they can’t hurt themselves. If you are at all concerned that your child may attempt to leave the house in their sleep, you should take extra measures to ensure that all doors and windows are very secure.
Sleep apnea is rare in childhood as it usually affects adults. When it occurs in children, it can be very serious. Sleep apnea causes the affected person to stop breathing for short periods during the night. If your child has the condition, you may hear them snoring or breathing strangely, and it can disturb their sleep.
Sleep apnea in children requires prompt treatment because it can lead to learning and behavioural problems, issues with growth and heart problems. Children with the condition may need to have their tonsils or adenoids removed to clear their airway. They may also need a special mask attached to a machine to help regulate their breathing while they sleep. If the child is overweight, weight loss may help to improve or resolve their condition.
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
RLS causes an unpleasant creeping, itching or tingling sensation in the legs. It can occasionally affect the arms as well. This leads to an irresistible urge to move the legs around to try and relieve their discomfort. This can make falling and staying asleep very difficult.
RLS can occur for a range of reasons. Sometimes, it’s caused by an iron deficiency. Other cases may be genetic. Children with the condition can be given supplements to improve their condition if it’s caused by low iron levels. Massage and using a weighted blanket can also help. If the child is seriously affected by their restless legs, a doctor may prescribe medication to help.
Choosing a Crib Mattress for a Baby
Choosing a crib mattress is one of the most important purchases you will make for a baby. After all, your baby will spend more than half of their life fast asleep. A good crib mattress can help to guard against the risk of SIDS and gives their body the support it needs to grow healthy bones, muscles and joints. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get a great crib mattress for your baby. However, you will need to shop around and check out reviews to make sure it meets certain key criteria.
Most crib mattresses are either foam or innerspring. Innerspring mattresses get their support from spring coils and are covered in a foam layer with a fabric cover. Innerspring have the advantage of being breathable, although they can be quite heavy to move around. Foam mattresses are equally common options. They can be much cheaper than some innerspring models.
Some parents opt for an organic crib mattress for their baby. These tend to be more expensive, although you may feel it is worth the price. The main advantages of organic crib mattresses are that you know they are manufactured from natural, non-toxic materials. They are also naturally hypoallergenic, so they are ideal for babies with allergies or asthma.
When you’re shopping for a crib mattress, make sure it meets the following basic requirements:
A mattress for a baby should feel very firm to the touch. In fact, it should feel practically hard to your adult tastes. While this may seem austere, it’s important to remember that your baby has very different needs when it comes to a mattress to your own. A firm crib mattress will prevent your baby from sinking in, making SIDS less likely. It will also give their body the support it needs to grow in a healthy way.
Look for a mattress with a waterproof cover. Spills and stains are pretty inevitable when it comes to babies. A waterproof cover makes it easier to keep your baby’s bedding clean and sanitary.
Your mattress should fit flush to the sides of the crib to prevent your baby from getting stuck in any gaps, which can cause serious injuries. You can check this by making sure you can fit no more than 2 fingers between the mattress and the crib sides.
It’s vital that your baby’s mattress is breathable. Otherwise, the mattress can retain body warmth and cause your baby to become dangerously overheated during the night.
The bottom line
Hopefully, you now understand everything you need to know about promoting healthy sleep in your child at every age. By establishing healthy sleep routines adapted to their age and developmental stage and providing a comforting and calming sleep environment, you can help your child to get the right amount of high-quality sleep. This will help keep them fit and healthy and set the scene for good sleep patterns and habits in adulthood.